As questions mount over whether the COVID-19 pandemic could have started with a Chinese lab leak, members of Congress are shining a bright spotlight on controversial virus research often referred to as “gain of function.” 

Lawmakers are increasingly concerned that researchers who experiment with viruses in an effort to understand them and avert future pandemics could end up making them more lethal or transmissible to humans – potentially causing the types of outbreaks they were seeking to prevent. Members of Congress have especially focused on whether U.S. taxpayers funded such research in China. 

At the center of the spotlight is Dr. Zhengli Shi at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, who collaborated on U.S.-funded grants that involved manipulating coronaviruses to understand their transmissibility to humans. She, her American colleagues, and National Institute of Health (NIH) officials have unequivocally rejected allegations that the work involved gain-of-function research or led to the outbreak of COVID-19, denouncing such claims as politicized misinformation.

Why We Wrote This

If a type of scientific research could prevent another pandemic, but also risk causing one if something goes wrong, is it worth it? Questions of scientific freedom, ethics, and public health are in the balance.

Scientists don’t agree on how exactly to define gain-of-function research, but generally it involves enhancing a pathogen to make it more virulent or transmissible. Critics say the NIH is using a narrow interpretation of what counts as gain of function, and has not provided ample transparency into the grant review process for such research. 

Debate over gain-of-function experiments involving viruses that could cause a pandemic was once largely confined to scientific journals, workshops, and advisory boards. But now, amid heightened concerns about biosafety, lawmakers see a need for greater oversight. A key ethical question is whether the benefits outweigh the risks, and if so, how scientific institutions and governments should best regulate it.

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